12 minute read
Disclaimer: At some point when you’re learning Mandarin Chinese, you will get bored.
It happens to us all. We hit a wall, lose steam, get ready to throw in the towel or hit the dreaded language plateau. Call it what you want, but it’s easy to get unmotivated from time to time, when taking on anything as challenging as learning Mandarin.
It’s also easy to think we need some super exciting or revolutionary hack to make us feel just as motivated as the first day we got started! But what if I told you that the secret to never getting bored learning Mandarin comes down to some simple, you-would-even-say boring advice.
By boring I mean things that don’t require any special creative skills, innate talent or lots of external resources like money or technology. Tips that are so boringly simple that they’re so easy to incorporate into your Mandarin learning routine, helping you improve consistently.
And if you’re improving your Mandarin, you’ll never get bored with it.
So before you go thinking you need some rare, shiny ideas to stay motivated…here are some very-boring-but-also-super-effective ways to help you stick to your Mandarin goals.
1. Treat it like fitness
I recommend you treat learning Mandarin Chinese the same way you treat going to the gym.
Just like with working out, seeing results is what makes you want to keep getting your sweat on. And, of course, you get those results by consistently making it to the gym! See how that works?
One more thing…you have to (there is a reason why I wrote that in italics) be specific. Saying to yourself “I’ll study Mandarin this week” leaves too much room for interpretation—and procrastination.
“I’ll study Mandarin Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2pm-3pm” is more like it. Use reminders on your phone to keep you accountable and regular. Whatever it takes, make a schedule and stick to it.
Just like with exercise, creating those Mandarin learning habits that work best for you will get you the results that ultimately keep you motivated in the long run!
2. Get book smart
When it comes to learning Mandarin, listening and speaking get all the hype.
True, reading Mandarin on its own isn’t the best way to learn Chinese—not to mention it doesn’t sound like any fun way to learn Chinese either—but it does have its place.
Like any language, Mandarin is a series of sounds which…yes, require listening and speaking practice to be able to reproduce. But that you can also pick up by reading those sounds.
For me, reading pinyin regularly has really helped me improve my listening and speaking skills. Maybe it’s because I’m a “visual learner”? Maybe it’s because looking at the words as you read them aloud helps with memorizing how they sound?
Either way, if you’re looking for a boring method to mix things up, pick up a Mandarin Chinese for beginners book, or any that’s more fit for your current level and…have fun!
3. Write in pinyin
While we’re on the subject of pinyin (I know, nothing revolutionary here), reading and writing it out is one of the best ways to improve Mandarin Chinese listening and comprehension.
Just don’t make the mistake I did and forget to write out the tone marks!
When I first started writing pinyin, I wouldn’t write the tone marks. I’ll admit, I was being lazy. But once I took the time to put in those tone marks (much to my chagrin), my hearing comprehension actually started to improve.
Could writing out the tones have helped my ear tune in to them better in some weird way?
Well…maybe it’s just me.
But give it a try and see if it works for you. It might make the difference between frustration and newfound motivation.
4. Invest in good writing tools
Never underestimate the power of a really good notebook and pen. Okay, so I must admit—I have somewhat of a penchant for stationary supplies.
That aside, it’s always good to have a go-to place to jot down notes and ideas, or even write in pinyin, or for writing practice when you’re learning Chinese characters.
My personal favorites: a three-subject, college-ruled notebook (the built-in dividers are handy if you want to dedicate a section of the notebook to say, Mandarin sentence patterns, etc.) and a mechanical pencil for writing. But you can also invest in some calligraphy paper and a good brush pen for characters.
Experiment and you’ll be surprised to find how much of a difference having some good writing tools around makes in keeping your Mandarin learning fun and enjoyable.
5. Get a good pair of Bluetooth headphones
Skip to #6 and put them to good use.
6. Get listening
One of the best ways to stay motivated to learn Mandarin is to vary your study methods, like listening to an audiobook or a podcast.
When searching for the best chinese podcasts online, make sure to look for ones that don’t speak Chinese exclusively. Depending on your Mandarin skill level, it will probably be a whole lot more useful to you if the speakers use both Chinese and English simultaneously, or Chinglish.
Chinglish podcasts, like the Mandarin Monkey English and Chinese Podcast, are a good way to practice your listening without overwhelming yourself—which can get really boring really fast.
7. Hit the snooze button
Okay, so not really a way to keep your Mandarin learning interesting per se, but scientists now know that everything we learn gets consolidated, or “stored away”, into the brain’s long-term memory as we sleep.1
So never discount good sleep hygiene as an essential tool to staying motivated and keeping your brain fresh for Mandarin!
(By the way, if you need a little help falling asleep, Ula will read you a Mandarin bedtime story.)
8. Get cozy with Mandarin grammar
Ok, so the word grammar doesn’t really have fun way to learn Mandarin written all over it. Grammar can be quite boring, which is precisely why…
You should read a Chinese grammar book to fall asleep at night!
It turns out, that dozy phase just before falling asleep lends itself to learning. Thomas Edison is known to have made good use of this “pre-sleep” phase to help him solve problems. He attributes many of his breakthrough ideas to picturing a problem in his mind just before falling asleep.
I’ve been reading grammar in bed for some time now and I find more of the concepts sticking—enough for me to recommend you bring a Mandarin grammar book to bed!
And while we’re on the subject of snoozing, scientists say it’s possible for you to learn by listening in your sleep.2 If you want to put this to work for you, I would recommend you check out the ASMR-inspired Mandarin Monkey WhisperCast, specially recorded to listen to while you snooze.
Okay, now back to things you can do to never get bored when learning Mandarin when you’re actually awake!
9. Make grammar cool (…again?)
You always hear drill, drill, drill when it comes to Chinese grammar. We already know it’s not very exciting (yawn).
The thing is…talking is grammar in action. And talking, unlike drilling, is exciting!
I know, not everyone will be as excited when you tell them you want to talk about grammar. But not at Mandarin Monkey! They love talking about grammar (trust me on this one).
They actually have weekly online get-togethers, called Hangouts, to talk about grammar and all things Mandarin Chinese, for that matter. You can join the conversation with a contribution of your choice through their Patreon page.
And remember, just because grammar can be boring doesn’t mean it can’t spice up your Mandarin learning!
10. Read movie scripts
Recently, I had the idea of using the dialogue from one of my favorite movies as a fun way to learn Mandarin. So I searched online for the full dialogue transcript for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
It took me a while to find it on some obscure website (seriously, how is this not something someone is already doing legitimately?) I printed it out and started to work line by line, looking up vocabulary and grammar patterns I didn’t know—using those writing tools I talked about earlier.
Tedious? Yes. Boring? Yes. But next time I watch the movie, it’ll have a whole new meaning, literally.
If there’s a movie you don’t mind watching over and over again, use it as a learning tool to keep your Mandarin learning fresh.
11. Drill sentence patterns
Nothing with the word “pattern” in it is ever that exciting. The thing is, Mandarin is basically built on sentence patterns, so if you pay special attention to just a few of them, your time and effort will really pay off in spades.
There’s nothing thrilling about memorizing sentence patterns. Recognizing them when you’re listening though, now that will make you want to sing for joy!
12. Build the most boring vocab ever
Vocabulary is essential, but everyone always wants to start with the cool words.
Instead, stick to the most common vocabulary words. I’m talking about the mundane and pedestrian words. Why? They’ll turn up a whole lot more in daily conversation, and there’s nothing more demotivating than not knowing a super basic word you feel like you should already know.
So start with household items and keep going from there. Do you even know how to say toothbrush in Mandarin?
13. Become fluent in Chinglish
When I was learning English in elementary school (Spanish is my first language), I quickly found a way to help me in those moments when I knew enough English to get a conversation started but not enough to speak English the whole time. I would just mix in the Spanish word instead, and little by little, build up more English to fill in the gaps.
It didn’t take me long to realize I hadn’t invented this clever system after all—there was already a name for it and it was called Spanglish.
Well, the same idea goes for when you’re learning Mandarin. Chinglish is using nearly 50%/50% Chinese and English, though not always in equal parts—it can even be 20/80!
Chinglish is nothing new—it’s already a staple of nearly all bilingual families. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a super useful tool to help you stay motivated when learning Mandarin.
Using Chinglish: a) helps reduce the fear that comes with speaking by allowing you to dip into English whenever you get stuck or to “bridge the gap” when you don’t know the Chinese word or grammar pattern yet; b) it helps boost your listening and comprehension; and c) gives you a good dose of confidence, all in one.
If you’re feeling stuck with your Mandarin, remember that you can always tap into Chinglish to give your learning a fresh boost. Hint—give the Mandarin Monkey Chinglish podcast a listen!
14. Ask questions (yes, even the ones you think are stupid)
It’s funny. Anyone can ask questions, but many Mandarin students don’t ask nearly enough.
Whether you’re a beginner or have some years of Mandarin under your belt, there’s always more to know (that goes for any language, actually). And what better way to expand your knowledge than to ask those that know more than you?
By the way—did you know you can get answers to some of the most commonly asked Mandarin Chinese questions over at Mandarin Monkey?
15. Be funny about feedback
Most people shy away from feedback. I suggest you do the opposite and actively seek it out.
Getting to love feedback (okay, maybe love is a strong word) is one of the most important things you can do if you want to continue improving your Mandarin.
Without any external feedback from peers or teachers, it’s hard to keep any serious progress going. And without progressing, studying Mandarin can get pretty boring.
One way to get feedback from an experienced Mandarin teacher is to take some type of more formal lesson. At Mandarin Monkey, the private or group lessons are structured so that every student gets immediate feedback during class, from pronunciation to grammar. They also have an optimal student-to-teacher ratio (maximum of four students per lesson for the group lessons) that makes it easy to ask questions and gauge your progress.
Plus, the first two 50-minute lessons are free, so it’s a great way to get feedback from a pro without spending a buck.
16. Adopt a growth mindset
Whether you’re taking a class or studying on your own, mispronouncing a word, messing up on a sentence pattern, or totally getting the wrong tone can be embarrassing, frustrating and sometimes even disheartening.
At one point, I almost gave up learning Mandarin because I felt I just couldn’t get it right. Then, I remembered reading Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset” concept.2 A growth mindset is basically the belief that you can improve beyond your current capabilities, and that improving is dependent not on any innate talent but on the effort you put into it.
It may not sound like groundbreaking advice, but adopting a “growth mindset” while learning Mandarin will ensure you stay motivated instead of bored, even when you make mistakes.
17. Just get started
I kept putting off learning Mandarin for a pretty long time. My excuse? I was looking for the most time-efficient, cost-effective, exciting, insert-your-adjective-here way to get started before I actually, err, got started.
The search for the “perfect” way to get started learning Mandarin has a name: procrastination.
Now, there is something to be said for needing a little guidance when you don’t know where to start—and finding a learning method that works best for you.
Just don’t let that stop you from taking action on your Mandarin learning goals. Take a lesson, watch Mandarin videos, try out doing a Mandarin only day (for the intermediate learners out there), or start with any of the tips outlined in this article.
There you have it, 17 of the most-boring-but-effective ways to never get bored when learning Mandarin. Nothing too exciting, no shiny new secrets, just tried-and-true methods that can really help you continually improve your Mandarin so you’ll stick to it. If you have any tips of your own, we want to hear them!